Jazz music has long been considered the only truly American art form, but even the most patriotic jazz purists make room in the pantheon of greats for a European interloper – the one and only Django Reinhardt.
The “hot” jazz sound that Reinhart pioneered will dominate the stage at over the next four days, when returns to the venue for its sixth year.
A Romani gypsy from Belgium, Reinhardt emerged in the thirties and forties as Europe’s best-known jazz musician, a virtuoso guitar player who combined his love for American greats like Louis Armstrong with the rich and mysterious Romani musical tradition. Though he died tragically young at age 43, Reinhardt’s musical legend was by that time cemented within jazz circles, and the past few decades have seen a worldwide spike in interest in both his music and his place in jazz history.
“He transformed jazz in a lot of ways,” says Nick Lehr, the co-founder of DjangoFest Mill Valley who produced his first such festival in Whidbey Island, Washington back in 2001. “Not only was he the most famous European jazz musician, but he’s also probably the only European that really contributed to the development of the art form.”
The idea for DjangoFest first struck Lehr at a similar event outside Paris, in the small town where Reinhardt lived as an adult and eventually died. Seeing the crowd’s enthusiasm for the music, Lehr thought it would be great to mount some kind of Django tribute event back home in the States.
Starting with Whidbey Island in the Northwest, Lehr has now produced editions of DjangoFest in multiple locations including Southern California, Colorado and the Bay Area. The Whidbey Island event has grown considerably since it debuted in 2001 and now attracts around 3,000 fans.
Reinhardt’s music and likeness have also begun to turn up more often in popular culture, including the film Sweet and Lowdown, in which Sean Penn’s mute jazz guitarist Emmet Ray idolizes Django. That film’s director, Woody Allen, is a notable jazz enthusiast and musician himself. (Allen performed at 142 Throckmorton with his New Orleans jazz band back in 2006.). And when Steve Jobs first introduced that most modern of devices -- the iPad – to the world back in 2010, he did it to the sounds of “Swing Guitars,” one of Reinhart’s most recognizable tunes, recorded with violinist Stéphane Grappelli and the Quintette of the Hot Club of France back in the thirties.
Local admirers of Reinhardt’s music and its contemporary incarnations will have a veritable feast of hot jazz -- both American and European -- to choose from over the next four days, starting with the two bands playing tonight, Jazz Gitan and Les Doigts de l'Homme.
Friday night brings performances by Hot Club Sandwich, the Hot Club of Detroit and singer Cyrille Aimee, while Saturday’s shows include a daytime encore by Hot Club of Detroit along with Tommy Davy, and an evening jam session featuring Fishtank Ensemble and Lollo Meier with Tcha Limberger.
DjangoFest wraps up on Sunday with its hot jazz all-stars, Matt Jaffe with Leah Wollenberg and Jake Carroll, and John Jorgenson with special guests Lollo Meier and Tcha Limberger. Local musicians (and Django fans) Dave Grisman and Dan Hicks have also been known to turn up from time to time for suprise appearances.
In between shows, DjangoFest is offering fans the opportunity to connect more intimately with the music through small workshops that focus on particular aspects of gypsy jazz, like “Django and Dizzie,” or special guitar and accordion workshops.
But Lehr is quick to point out that Reinhart’s music is for everyone, not just jazz-lovers.
“It’s not the kind of music you need a PhD to appreciate,” he says. “It’s toe-tapping, swinging music that’s very accessible to people of all ages.”
The 411: opens tonight at 142 Throckmorton Theatre with Jazz Gitan and Les Doigts de l'Homme, and continues with daily programming through Sunday. Tickets are $30 General Admission, $40 Reserved Seating, $25 Students. For $130, a Festival Pass guarantees reserved seating at all shows. All Workshops are $40. Click here for the full schedule or to buy tickets.